Row over THORP, worry over detergent ban at North Sea meeting

The latest stage in a long-running dispute about discharges from nuclear reprocessing facilities dominated the annual meeting of the Oslo and Paris Commissions in June. The meeting also agreed to ban three chemicals used in fabric softeners, despite concerns about the lack of published information on the environmental impact of potential substitutes and concerns that the ban will work in favour of Europe's major producers of fabric conditioners.

The meeting of the two Commissions, which lay down rules for dumping and discharges in the North Sea and neighbouring marine waters, produced fewer decisions than in recent years. The Commissions are preoccupied with reorganising themselves to implement a new Convention agreed in Paris last September (ENDS Report 211, pp 34-36 ). All the North Sea states have signed the Convention, although none has yet ratified.

The most high-profile issue debated at the meeting was a proposal tabled by Denmark and Eire and backed by Iceland, Norway, Spain and Portugal that THORP, the new nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield, Cumbria, should not be allowed to come into operation if it increases radioactive discharges from the complex.

The proposal provoked objections not only from the UK but from France and Belgium, which both have reprocessing interests, and from Germany, which is one of THORP's main potential customers. The cover for their objections was that the Paris Commission does not have the legal competence to include references to a specific facility such as THORP in its rules.

The Recommendation was eventually adopted but with the reference to THORP deleted. It provides that new or revised discharge authorisations for reprocessing plants should only be issued once "special consideration" has been given to "information on the need for spent fuel reprocessing and on other options", a full environmental impact assessment, and a demonstration that the planned discharges are consistent with the use of "best available techniques" and the precautionary principle. "Special consideration" must also be given to a consultation with the Paris Commission on all three points.

France, Belgium and the UK all tabled reservations against the Recommendation, signifying that they do not feel bound to comply with it. But the new rules will undoubtedly put pressure on the UK Government to consult North Sea states on its apparent intention to give THORP the go-ahead, in particular over the vexed question of the need for fuel reprocessing (see pp 29-31 ).

Other measures adopted at the meeting covered:

  • Cationic detergents: Another Paris Commission Recommendation urges contracting parties to replace di(hardened tallow) dimethyl ammonium chloride (DHTDMAC) in fabric softeners and its substitution by "less environmentally hazardous" alternatives. The same applies to its sister compounds, DSDMAC and DTDMAC.

    The UK also entered a reserve against this Recommendation. Some of the background to its resistance can be found in the recent first report of the Department of the Environment's Technical Committee on Detergents and the Environment.

    According to the report, DHTDMAC is the principal active ingredient of many fabric conditioners sold in the UK. In contrast, the chemical has been phased out in the Netherlands and Germany under voluntary agreements with industry.

    It was the Dutch who set the ball rolling following a review which concluded that a Negligible Risk Level (NRL) for the compound would be exceeded in most waters in the Netherlands downstream of sewage discharges. The NRL was set at one-hundreth of a Maximum Permissible Risk Level, which in turn was well below the concentration at which the compound caused no adverse effects in tests on aquatic species.

    According to the DoE's Committee, the Dutch approach is "unnecessarily and unrealistically stringent and, if applied generally, will have severe implications not just for the detergent industry but for the whole chemical industry." Using the Dutch approach, the concentrations of many compounds naturally present in surface waters would be well in excess of their NRLs.

    The Committee also argued that some highly conservative assumptions had been built into the calculations used by the Dutch and German authorities when predicting the likely levels of DHTDMAC in surface waters and the risks it consequently posed. Continued use of the compound, the report concluded, was environmentally acceptable.

    Two other concerns were raised by the UK at the Paris Commission meeting. One was that the Dutch initiative was based on toxicity data for DHTDMAC in fresh water, and few data are available on its impact in saline waters, which are the Paris Commission's province.

    Secondly, there is believed to be some concern within the DoE that the ban could work against small companies. All three major European suppliers of fabric conditioners have now stopped using the substances, but very few data on the environmental acceptability of substitutes have entered the public domain. This leaves the Paris Commission in the tricky position of banning three chemicals without adequate information on any hazards posed by the alternatives, and when small firms competing with the big three producers may not have ready access to substitutes. The effect could be that the big three further consolidate their market position.

    It remains to be seen whether the UK will maintain its reserve on the Recommendation. The DoE will probably want to obtain aquatic toxicity data on substitute detergents before deciding how to proceed.

    Clearly, though, the Paris Commission's tacit acceptance of the Dutch approach to managing chemical risks to the water environment may have important long-term implications for many other substances.

  • Hexachloroethane: This chemical has been used as a degassing agent in the non-ferrous metal industry, primarily in copper and magnesium foundries. A "black list" substance, it has been implicated in water pollution problems, including the discharge of dioxins as a by-product of its use. A Decision adopted at the meeting requires it to be phased out by the end of 1997, except in connection with the production of three specific magnesium alloys.

    The UK also expressed a reserve against this measure, but this is likely to be dropped once a compliance cost assessment of the Decision has been completed. Hexachloroethane is believed to be used in small quantities in the UK, although little information is available on its consumption by copper foundries.

    Discussions have also been initiated by the European Commission with a view to banning the use of hexachloroethane in the non-ferrous metals industry under EC legislation on the marketing and use of dangerous substances.

  • Agricultural pesticides: A small step was taken by the Paris Commission with the adoption of a Recommendation on "best environmental practice" for reducing inputs of agricultural pesticides to the environment. France and Portugal entered reserves against this initiative.

    The Recommendation begins by acknowledging that "several comprehensive national pesticide risk reduction programmes have indicated that the key strategy to achieve risk reduction is reduction of quantities used," and by noting that "national reduction targets have been set and achieved" by some Commission members.

    However, this is not followed through at all in the body of the Recommendation, which simply urges countries to draw up codes of best environmental practice in pesticide management, exchange information on pesticide regulation, and draw up action programmes on pesticides. It is likely that the Commission will return to the idea of pesticide use reduction programmes at a later date.

  • Primary iron and steel plants: A Recommendation laying down the "best available technology" for releases from existing primary iron and steel plants and associated coke ovens was adopted, albeit with reservations from Belgium, Portugal and Spain. The requirements come into force from 1 January 2000.

    The standards laid down in the Recommendation are unlikely to be particularly contentious in the UK, where they will be overtaken by more detailed standards to be laid down when integrated pollution control is applied to iron and steel works.

    The Recommendation does, however, lay down fairly stringent controls for some releases. Most sources of particulates will have to meet an emission standard of 50mg/m3, but a limit of 10mg/m3 will apply where the dust contains hazardous metals. One possible problem area is a requirement that emissions from basic oxygen furnaces should meet a particulate limit of 50mg/m3. Effective methods of capturing all the waste gases from these furnaces are not yet available, and the Recommendation acknowledges this by allowing a derogation to 80mg/m3. The need for this is to be reviewed by 1997.

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